Judge weighs effort to keep Minneapolis police question off November ballot

It's again up to a Hennepin County judge to decide whether to kick the Minneapolis police ballot question off November's ballot.

Lawyers for three residents, the city, and the political group pushing the charter amendment made opposing arguments before Judge Jamie Anderson during an hourlong court hearing Monday morning. Anderson didn't make an immediate decision but promised one "as soon as possible."

Anderson has struck the question from the city's two previous attempts at ballot language. If she orders changes to ballot language written by the Minneapolis City Council just last week, there likely wouldn't be enough time to change it again before early voting starts Friday. Ballots are already at the printer.

"Voters are no further informed today than they were a week ago," Joe Anthony, the attorney seeking to strike the new language, said during Monday's hearing. "The average voter can’t tell from the ballot question what they’re voting for."

Attorneys for the city and Yes 4 Minneapolis, the group that led a petition drive to get the police question on the ballot in the first place, argued that there was no obligation to include a longer explanation of the proposed changes. Assistant City Attorney Ivan Ludmer compared the series of hearings to Goldilocks, voicing concerns that Anderson is now deciding if the bed is "too soft or too hard or just right."

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Terrance Moore, an attorney for Yes 4 Minneapolis, said the campaign trail is the proper place for debate over the outcomes of the ballot question.

"How are we supposed to know what’s going to happen, the purposes of the amendment?" he asked. "The ballot question is not the place to do that."

The question asks voters whether they want to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a public safety agency that could have police officers. The ballot question is meant to settle an 18-month debate over the future of policing in the city.

Anderson rejected City Council's first attempt that included a lengthy explanatory note, which Anderson said caused confusion. Last week, she struck a pared-down ballot question that she called "vague and misleading." 

City Council then approved new language hours before Hennepin County's deadline to start printing ballots, but residents who filed the lawsuit over the first version said the latest edition still doesn't adequately explain the issue to voters.

In a new explanatory note intended to clarify the question, voters are told " this amendment would create a Department of Public Safety combining public safety functions through a comprehensive public health approach to be determined by the Mayor and Council." It goes on to say "The Police Department, and its chief, would be removed from the City Charter. The Public Safety Department could include police officers, but the minimum funding requirement would be eliminated."

David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University who is a close watcher of local politics, said any changes ordered by the judge now would force a series of questions about whether the measure can be on November's ballot.

"We’re right at the edge right now. We’ve got ballots being printed. If the judge orders a change, then there’s going to be a problem here," Schultz said.

Regardless of Anderson's decision, the losing side is likely to appeal, dragging the legal fight closer to Election Day. The ballot language matters because, to some voters, the wording can be influential, Schultz said.

"Voters may vote for or against something based on the descriptive language and not based on what is actually going to be legally binding in terms of the law," he said.